Anarchy in Melbourne

Below is some blah blah blah that I prepared earlier. It concerns a statement of ‘What We Believe’ for Barricade Books (est.1995), an anarchist infoshop in Melbourne.


NB. As far as I’m aware, the ‘Barricade Policy’ was first developed some time after the shop opened (in February 1995), possibly during the course of 1997. (A printed copy I have in my possession states that the document in question was adopted in September 1997, although whether or not this refers solely to the passages on that page—regarding the obligations of residents and user groups—or the document as a whole isn’t clear.) In any case, the current version is based on this earlier version, and was written largely by me, in consultation with other collective members, sometime during my previous stint as a collective member in late 1998 – early 2000.

B’s comments and my own reply follows.

· We recognise that the land on which we stand belongs to the Wurundjeri people and we participate alongside the Koori community in the struggle for land rights and self-determination.

Proudhon: “Property is theft.” In what sense does this land “belong” to the Wurundjeri? If it’s not in the propertarian sense, fine, but clarify it. Those who currently need and use this land are the ones who can most rightly claim it. Denying even the property rights of indigenous Australians does not preclude a statement recognising that the current use of former Wurundjeri land by non-indigenous Australians (and probably non-Wurundjeri indigenous Australians) is the indirect result of regrettable acts of violent displacement and slaughter by British colonists.

I agree with B that the meaning of this passage is unclear. (I think Bonnie, among others, has also pointed this out at some point.) To begin with, the notion that the land “belongs” to the Wurundjeri would seem to be in contradiction to the (anarchist) claim that “Property is theft” (that is, under capitalism). Perhaps it would be more correct to say that, on the basis that “[t]hose who currently need and use this land are the ones who can most rightly claim it”, the land once belonged to the Wurundjeri, but now belongs to others as well.

However, I believe that there are a number of problems with this approach. For it seems to me that there are other obligations on the part of non-indigenous peoples—us mob—in regard to this, ‘a little matter of genocide’. For example: what, if any, are the practical consequences of acknowledging that our occupation of this land “is the indirect [?] result of regrettable acts of violent displacement and slaughter by British colonists”? I think that one possible problem with identifying colonialism as being ‘an historical event now superseded by events’—which is what I think this passage does, not that I think that this was necessarily B’s intention—is that it essentially absolves those who have benefited from this process of any responsibility for confronting the awful consequences this has had for Australia’s indigenous populations; in particular, the Wurundjeri. In this context, the notion that “we participate alongside the Koori community in the struggle for land rights and self-determination” is intended to supplement our belief that the land “belongs” to the Wurundjeri.

“Never ever can you take the land away from us and the land will always belong to Aboriginal people, as we are a part of the land and the land a part of us. You can’t own your mother, she owns you.”

Secondly, as far as I’m aware, and as the above passage indicates, the Wurundjeri have never ceded sovereignty over their land. In other words, it would be wrong of us to believe that, because people other than the Wurundjeri now ‘make use’ of the(ir) land, it now ‘belongs’ to these others. Even if we were to embrace the notion of usufruct—the right to enjoy the use of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance—given the massive damage to the natural environment that has occurred and that has been an integral part of the colonialist project, we could hardly claim our occupancy as being ethical on these grounds.

In any case, the notion of ‘ownership’ need not have exclusively ‘propertarian’ overtones. For example, my understanding is that, in Australia, Aboriginal societies developed a precise, although complex, concept of landholding, in which individual men and women hold particular relationships to land, inherited from parents and arising from their own conceptions and birth sites. These relationships entail obligations and responsibilities to protect the land, its species and people from damage and unauthorised use; and to husband the land, use it, harvest it and do the things it needs to maintain its productivity. Thus the Aboriginal concept of landholding is very different from the (hegemonic) European concept of land as individually owned private property, a commodity to be bought, sold and used to generate profit. So yes, the land “belongs” to the Wurundjeri people; more importantly, the Wurundjeri belong to the land.

So where does this leave us? Over to you, comrades!

· We work for the creation of a society that encourages cultural diversity and we reject all forms of racial and ethnic prejudice, nationalism and patriotism. We are not patriots, we are revolutionaries.

We work for the creation of a society that encourages cultural diversity and we reject all forms of nationalism and patriotism, and the racial and ethnic prejudice on which they are founded. We are not patriots, we are revolutionaries.

I have a minor quibble with this re-phrasing. In my view, nationalism and patriotism need not be founded on racial or ethnic prejudice. In other words, it would be possible to envisage a society—a ‘multicultural’ society—in which nationalist and patriotic values are encouraged while racial and ethnic prejudices are disavowed. (This is not to say that I don’t recognise the extent to which nationalist values encourage various forms of prejudice and discrimination…)

· We believe that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger, want and boredom are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. We advocate the abolition of capitalism and the wage system and their replacement with workers’ self-management of the means of production and the distribution of goods and services according to need not profit.

We believe that there can be no peace as [long as?] the working multitudes suffer hunger, want, and boredom, while the minority employing class monopolises power, wealth, and freedom. We advocate the abolition of capitalism and the wage system and their replacement with workers’ self-management of the means of production and the distribution of goods and services according to need rather than profit.

I think this phrase should be deleted for two reasons. One, it’s totally untrue. The working class and employing class share a good deal of the material conditions under which they both exist. Secondly, working and employing people are all degraded by living in a society which is not a free association of economic and political equals. This should be a cause for solidarity rather than antagonism. Maybe we could even have a statement that recognises this. The statement here seems lifted from a Class War publication, and the brutal, alienated and alienating politics that movement espouses are something I’d be keen to distance myself from. They do nothing to promote anarchism and anarchist modes of social and economic organisation as palatable alternatives to capitalist representative democracy.

B’s guess is correct. The first portion of this statement has indeed been lifted from a Class War publication… well, of sorts! It is, in fact, a slightly re-worded version (I added the term ‘boredom’) of the first passage from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Preamble, adopted at its founding conference in Chicago on July 3, 1905.

I quite like it! Here’s why:

While it’s true that the working class and employing class do in fact “share a good deal of the material conditions” under which both labour (sic), I believe it would be a mistake to interpret this statement too literally. In essence, what this statement expresses is class consciousness—or a ‘radical working class subjectivity’ (if you prefer). It’s based on an acute recognition by workers—in the case of the Australian IWW of the early twentieth century, chiefly ‘unskilled’—of class exploitation. To recognise our society as one divided on class lines, and to struggle against the rule of state and capital, forms the very basis of anarchism (at least as I understand it). Further, while it’s true that both workers and bosses are degraded by capitalism, it’s also true that, in a capitalist society, some—the employing class—are ‘more equal than others’. The idea that this should be a cause for solidarity with rather than antagonism to our rulers—that is, (class) conflict or (class) struggle—is, in my opinion, not only mistaken, but also contrary to any authentic expression of revolutionary anarchism. Some problems are based on objective conflicts of interest, and in these instances striving to resolve “misunderstandings” through dialogue is essentially useless. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” (Frederick Douglass).

Finally, as far as the impact of such organizations as Class War or the IWW on the promotion of anarchism is concerned—or, of more relevance in this context, the French CGT prior to its ideological and political collapse at the commencement of WWI, or the CNT-FAI, especially during the Spanish Civil War—I would argue that these organizations have probably done more than any other to advance the cause of anarchism, especially and most significantly, among workers. Indeed, to ignore the contribution of ‘class struggle anarchists’ to the history of anarchism would be tantamount to consigning anarchism to that overflowing dustbin called history. Thus whatever the particular form support for class conflict takes in the publications of the group Class War (I’m thinking here of the original Class War Federation, not the… [group] from Sydney), to conflate their ideology with the theory and practice of class struggle as a whole is simply wrong. In any case, it’s not a commitment to class struggle on the part of workers that I find to be distasteful; on the contrary, it is capitalism that is “brutal, alienated and alienating”—precisely why it must be dismantled and a libertarian form of socialism implemented.

Nevertheless… I find B’s rationale for making such a re-statement much more objectionable than the revised passage itself!

· We believe that the state, like capitalism, cannot be reformed, and refuse to support participation in parliamentary elections on that basis. We advocate the abolition of all forms of government and the state and the replacement of hierarchical political structures with those based on direct, participatory democracy.

I won’t rewrite anything here, because I know my opinion here will be highly controversial. Abstention doesn’t make a great deal of political sense, except as a symbolic gesture. In reality, the opportunity to vote does put a small degree of power in the hands of citizens, and they can use this (if they are anarchists) to back representatives that will attempt to maximise liberty and political and economic equality. Especially in the contemporary world, anarchists need to use this power to back parties that will not punish their revolutionary politics by classifying them as treasonous and terroristic. Ideally, non-abstentionist anarchists would be able to vote for a political party that would abolish the state if elected to a majority government (possibly ignoring constitutional obstacles if necessary), and in the meantime block any legislation that curtailed civil liberties or provided protection for the capitalist class and its interests, and constantly introduce repeals of such legislation to Parliament, reducing the effectiveness of government. Participation in elections does not necessarily entail support of representative democracy and the capitalist ruling class it currently serves.

Why abstain from participating in governmental elections? Well, as the old saying goes, ‘If it is humiliating to be ruled, how much more so to choose our rulers?’ Seriously though… it seems to me that what is at issue here is our understanding of ‘the state’: what it is, what it does, and what approach anarchists should take towards it. For Gustav Landauer, “the State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently”. I share Landauer’s perspective, and it is from this vantage point that I take issue with B’s argument regarding the utility of elections.

To begin with, I should say that I don’t really care all that much whether others, even other anarchists, vote or not. To me, it’s an irrelevancy. What matters is not whether we vote, but how we live our lives. That said, I think that one aspect of advancing an anarchist—which is to say, radical—understanding of society is the attempt to grasp things as they really are, rather than as they are conveyed to us via the prism of the dominant, capitalist ideology. A belief that a change in government could possibly bring about a real change in our lives is, I would argue, an illusion. (‘A change in government is the joy of fools’.) Moreover, the idea that “a political party… would abolish the state if elected to a majority government” is, to put it bluntly, absurd. As far as I’m concerned, to believe that this is a possibility, even if only “ideally”, is to completely misunderstand the nature of the state as a particular form of social relations. The best that we can expect from governments, by their very nature, is the ratification—and therefore potential recuperation—of a de facto reality. This is precisely the situation that revolutionary movements have encountered on innumerable occasions previously, and to ascribe to the state a power that is solely the province of revolutionary social movements is to undermine the very foundations of anarchist thought and practice. This practice is embodied in the notion of direct action, which is the very antithesis of the ameliorative practice of parliamentary or legislative reform. As someone else once wrote: “If it seems absurd to talk about revolution, this is because organized revolutionary movements have long since disappeared from the countries where the possibilities of a decisive transformation of society are concentrated. But everything else is even more absurd, since it is limited to what exists and to the various ways of putting up with it.”

· We reject patriarchy and fight for the empowerment and liberation of women.

We reject all forms of sex-based hierarchy and fight for a world free of sex discrimination.

It’s worth making these changes because men suffer discrimination from women who ascribe all brutality and oppression in this world to them, and such women don’t deserve any implicit support from us by our leaving out the fact that matriarchy would be just as bad as patriarchy, only upside-down.

It’s undoubtedly true that some men suffer from discrimination from sexist women, and we, as anarchists, should obviously not support this practice. It’s also true that we don’t desire to replace a male-dominated society with a female-dominated one. However, it seems relatively uncontroversial to me to acknowledge that contemporary Australian society is a patriarchal one. Further, that to acknowledge this fact in no way implies support for a matriarchal alternative. So, my problem with B’s phrasing is not so much what it does say—I am completely in agreement with B on this—so much as what it doesn’t. Is this worth expressing in a collective statement on ‘What We Believe’? I think so.

· We also reject compulsory heterosexuality and fight for the empowerment and liberation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

We also reject all forms of normative sexuality and fight for the sexual empowerment of all people.

I’ve made this change because minority sexual politics ignores the degree to which heterosexuals are repressed by normative constructions of their sexuality. There’s a theme to my suggestions, you’ll notice: everyone gets a bad deal under capitalism, and no-one is entitled to special treatment.

I suppose that, like B, there’s a certain theme to my comments. It’s not so much that I don’t reject “all forms of sex-based hierarchy” or “all forms of normative sexuality”—well, in theory anyway—but that it would be remiss not to specify in some way the fact that, in our society, women and those who don’t conform to heterosexist norms—especially ‘GLBITs’—experience particular forms of oppression. (And if I could express that idea more elegantly, believe me, I would!)

More broadly, I think the supposition that “everyone gets a bad deal under capitalism” is beside the point. (It also begs the question: if ‘everyone’ suffers under capitalism, why doesn’t ‘everyone’ organise to overthrow it?) In other words, I would argue that, while it may be true that Phil Ruddock (for example) may have experienced some discomfit during his tenure as Minister for Immigration—and that this discomfit may be in some way traced to ‘capitalism’—it is as nothing compared to the horrors enforced upon those incarcerated in his concentration camps. Similarly, the profits that Australian companies extract from Australian workers may cause their CEOs some degree of uncertainty regarding how best to reinvest these, but again, I believe our solidarity should be extended to those (others) who are exploited; not those who profit from this exploitation.

Finally(!), regarding the notion that any of this has anything to do with according anyone “special treatment”, I couldn’t disagree more. Under capitalism—or ‘capitalist patriarchy’—different groups are positioned differently in terms of the webs of power and domination within which we find ourselves. If we are to extract ourselves from these and construct a society based on anarchist principles of autonomy, direct action and self-management, then we must recognise that this ‘power’ is distributed in a grossly unequal manner—with all the implications this has for our ability to freely (re-) create our lives and our selves. As such, and to put it bluntly, we cannot avoid ‘taking sides’. This is not only necessary, but completely in keeping with anarchist understandings of society and social change. “We are not patriots, we are revolutionaries”, and the revolution we seek to foster can only come from below, from all those who are oppressed and exploited…

· We recognise that our natural environment is under continual assault from the forces of capitalist industrialism and support its defence by any means necessary. We look forward to the creation of a free society in harmony with nature.

We recognise that our natural environment is under constant threat from the excesses of capitalist production and consumption, and support that environment’s defence by any means necessary. We look forward to the creation of a free society in harmony with nature.

Leaving aside the relationship between capitalism on the one hand and industrialism on the other, I would argue that, in order to forestall a total or near-total ecological collapse, we must combat not only capitalism’s excesses but also capitalism itself. In short, there is no such thing as ‘sustainable capitalism’.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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